Presented by Steve Crawshaw, December 8, 2020
Introduction of Speaker: 0:00 – 5:00
Presentation: 5:01 – 28:14
Final Poll, Questions and Answers: 28:15 – 1:03:40
It has been both dismaying and inspiring to watch events in Belarus in recent months, with the continued violent repression of nonviolent resistance, that continues undimmed and undeterred. In their nonviolent struggle against brutal regime, Belarusian people resorted to various creative resistance actions that help engage people in mass noncooperation and disobedience against the regime, mock its ruler, mobilize others and peel off key regime supporters. At the time of writing, however, Alexander Lukashenko, who has retained power for 26 years in “Europe’s last dictatorship,” remains in the presidential palace.
Steve Crawshaw, author of Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief (foreword by Ai Weiwei), looks at what the history of nonviolent resistance, in the immediate region and worldwide, teaches us about the prospects for a democratic change propelled by civil resistance in Belarus today.
He specifically examines the use of creative actions, including humor, that have been a hallmark of nonviolent resistance. Although humor is often seen as a mere “add-on,” Crawshaw argues that it can be both effective and appropriate even in the most difficult circumstances. Such creativity has played a key role in successful outcomes of nonviolent movements, Crawshaw says.
About the Presenter
Steve Crawshaw is the author of Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief, foreword by Ai Weiwei, which has been translated into Arabic, Chinese and other languages.
He is policy director at Freedom from Torture. Before joining Freedom from Torture he worked in senior roles at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. He was Russia and East Europe Editor and chief foreign correspondent of The Independent, covering the east European revolutions, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Balkan wars.
Questions and Answers
The following questions came in during the webinar. Since we did not have enough time to address them during the session, Steve Crawshaw has answered them in writing.
1. You have shown that humor can be a powerful weapon against a humorless regime—but what are your thoughts about being funny in the face of the existential climate and ecological emergency we face?
I agree that in this context it is not quite the same as making a tyrant look foolish through his humorlessness. But I think one basic principle still applies — when we do or see things which are creative or make us smile, we get pleasure from That. That doesn’t of course mean the issues aren’t serious, the opposite. Extinction Rebellion has used some wonderfully creative techniques to keep or make people engaged.
2. What are the effects of humor in protest in democratic countries or countries with traditions of freedom of speech? Are they less potent because there is less fear of criticizing leaders? Can humor be counterproductive if it alienates people who support “the other side?” Where does humor fit into movements in these environments?
Alienating “the other side” — or to be exact, alienating the agnostics/un-engaged — is definitely a potential problem to be watched for. (Alienating your opponent, less so). As regards the power of humor and democracy: I think humor always has a certain power, but agree that it is (paradoxically) sometimes harder to achieve change in a democracy than a repressive regime — if millions go on the streets in an autocratic regime, that usually means the regime will fracture and the tyranny will collapse. In a democracy, by contrast, the government can more easily afford to sit protests out. There are limits to that logic, but of course a democratically elected leader, however undemocratically he behaves, is more difficult to challenge, with humor or without.
3. In Belarus right now almost all attention is focused on organizing symbolic action. It makes it difficult to get them to organize other measures like economic boycott and strikes. What are effective methods in shifting attention without a strong leadership organization?
A strong leadership can be important in protests. Equally, however, the shared ownership of partly spontaneous protest is important. It is true that there there have not (yet?) been strikes which have brought Belarus to a standstill, despite strike actions. Other countries have shown that the most successful protests have usually been a mix of the organized (including industrial strikes) and the looser protests which everybody can take part in, not necessarily at the same time. I think the “symbolic” protests should never be underestimated, but also that “classic” forms of protest in factories and elsewhere are relevant, — especially when the initial drama has gone out of the first few days of going out on the streets.
Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief by Steve Chrawshaw, foreward by Ai Weiwei
“How Solidarity Gives Hope to Belarus” by Steve Crawshaw, Unherd
“The People vs. Lukashenko: Women-Led Resistance on the Eve of Belarus Election” by Maciej Bartkowski, Minds of the Movement
“A Banner in a Coffin: Djibouti’s Nonviolent Struggle against Authoritarianism” by Abdourahman Mohamed “TX” Guelleh, Minds of the Movement
“Why Civil Resistance Works” by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, International Security, 33(1).
“Review: Blueprint for a Revolution, a Fantastically Readable and Useful Handbook for Activists” by Duncan Green, The Guardian
“Havel Was a Giant for Eastern Europe Who Must Be Remembered” by Steve Crawshaw, The Independent
“The Power of the Powerless” by Vaclav Havel